It's mid-June, and my partner, Bruce "Mac" McKenzie, and I will soon leave our San Francisco home to spend two weeks on the French island of Corsica, followed by two weeks in Spain. Our homes-away-from-home will be a charming stone house in a Corsican village overlooking turquoise Mediterranean waters, and a vast apartment in the pulsing heart of Madrid. How can a journalist and a retired telephone lineman afford a month of such swell vacation digs? Only thanks to home exchanging, which allows us to stay for free, car included.

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During our 15 years of exchanges, Mac and I have settled into 27 homes in six foreign countries and the United States. And while exchanging has saved us tens of thousands of dollars in lodging — not to mention what we'd have spent eating every meal out and renting cars — we love it for another reason: We can experience life like the locals.

Don't worry if you're initially unsettled by the idea of turning your home over to strangers; that's the gut reaction of many people who eventually become seasoned exchangers. Try starting, as Mac and I did, with a weekend exchange somewhat close to home, to build your comfort level before graduating to more far-flung and lengthy trips.

Ours have ranged from a two-nighter in an Ashland, Oregon, bungalow to a three-week stopover at a Santa Fe town house. One favorite was a 10-day idyll in a country house outside Bath, England, where we happily cared for six garrulous hens who rewarded us daily with fresh eggs.

How it works

House exchanging entails making a direct owner-to-owner agreement to temporarily trade homes and, sometimes, cars. There are no agents, legal contracts or damage deposits. That sounds scary, but we have yet to return home to a problem worse than a broken wineglass, nor have we found anything unexpected on the other end.

The length of a trip depends on the parties' schedules. Note that exchangers usually assume light household duties such as watering plants and taking out the trash.

See also: How to be a good houseguest

Getting started

Browse listings on membership websites such as, and, where exchangers post descriptions of their homes (usually with photos) and their preferred destinations and dates. Fees to join a site are reasonable: We pay about $150 to list our home and have access to other listings for two years. If you rent, or live in a condo or co-op, make sure exchanging is allowed. And ask insurers if short-term loans of the home are covered.

Making an exchange

When creating your listing, highlight your home's key attributes — antique furnishings, nice views — and upload a few enticing photos. Homes don't need to be the same size for a successful swap; we once gladly traded our three-bedroom house for a cozy studio apartment in Barcelona. Email potential swappers; if they're interested, expect a few rounds of emails to close the deal. Before the swap, you might squirrel away valuables. We secure financial records and a few irreplaceable heirlooms.

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